Oh My Virgin Ears!: A First Listen to OK Computer

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With Oh My Virgin Ears!, KEXP’s (young) intern Gabe Pollak takes a first listen at iconic albums in music history. With revered UK group Radiohead playing a sold out show next door at Key Arena tonight, we had him spend some time with the band’s third LP — often called “one of the greatest albums of all time” — 1997’s OK Computer. Radiohead are on tour now in support of last year’s release A Moon Shaped Pool, out on XL Recordings.

In celebration of the Radiohead concert at Key Arena, 10 Barrel Brewing and KEXP will be hosting a pre-funk party with a mini beer garden in the Courtyard next to KEXP and Key Arena from 11 AM to 4 PM. 10 Barrel Brewing will be sampling beer and DJ Morgan will be playing Radiohead-inspired music during this free, open-to-the-public, 21+ event.

When I was 12, I flew headfirst into a wall, shoved by an opponent during an indoor soccer match, and suffered a severe concussion. I couldn’t sleep or focus on anything and I had a constant headache. I missed the Ancient China unit, two months of school, and I wasn’t allowed to play soccer (shocker), read, or do much of anything really.

I passed the time watching music videos, jotting down the song titles and artists’ names on pieces of paper, comparing the lists. Stuck at home, the music reduced my sense of isolation, which even my biweekly doctor’s appointments were doing little to diminish.

There was one video that terrified me. In it, a parade of grotesque cartoons torment a kid in a beanie with the letter ‘R’ on it, who then climbs a streetlight. The plot made no sense — ‘R’ goes with his friend to see a naked women in a tree, plays ping-pong with an angel, and eventually a Winston Churchill lookalike dismembers himself and falls into the sea — but the characters resembled the world I knew closely enough that as soon as I heard that eerie acoustic riff, those unexpected claves, and that bewildering voice, I knew that it was time to change the channel. The white letters at the bottom left corner of the screen, which I so rarely stuck around to see reappear at the end of the video, spelled out the origin of my fears.

It was a band called Radiohead performing a song called “Paranoid Android,” on an album called OK Computer.

During the rest of my sabbatical, that was as much as I needed to know. Radiohead remained a nightmarish mystery that I was not going to investigate.

Of course, as I recovered and returned to the relative normalcy of my music-centric middle school social life, I couldn’t help but learn more about one of the most important bands of the early oughts. The guitarist in my middle school jazz band loved Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead’s guitarist) and praised him for his knowledge of music theory and many cool effects pedals. Another friend, who I regularly IMed with about British rock, told me that I “really should get into them.” Worst of all, Rolling Stone, which I read religiously, wouldn’t shut up about these five guys from England who kept changing the course of rock music by infusing electronica, krautrock, free jazz and other things I didn’t like that much at the time into their music.

That all changed in high school, when a bandmate loaned me a flash drive with In Rainbows on it. All the press the band was getting about the ‘pay what you want’ model revolutionizing music distribution piqued my interest and “15 Step” kept it.

I worked my way through more of their discography, but somehow avoided OK Computer. There was always another artist to talk about it, another album to listen to.

My avoidance of this seminal album ran so deep that it wasn’t until last Thursday that I truly listened to OK Computer for the first time. Alone in my apartment at 4 AM, sleepless with a stomach bug, over a decade after my first encounter with the music video for “Paranoid Android,” I was already uncomfortable. Why wait any longer? I leaned over the side of the couch, plugged in my speakers, and threw up. Then I hit play.

My speakers rumbled to life and I felt immediately nauseous. The riff that opens “Airbag,” the first track on OK Computer, begins on a pickup note, a beat before you expect it to. You’re left with the feeling that you’ve walked in on something that’s already started, like walking into class on the first day of school to find you’re not only late, but in the wrong room. When sleigh bells join in, they sound like a comic foil to the guitar. It’s an eerie subversion of the peppy jingle you’d expect to hear in a Christmas carol or a Motown hit, but not a prog rock song.

Then Thom Yorke begins to sing something about the “next world war,” which was about all I could catch on my first go, too busy listening to Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich slam the drums through an obscene number of filters. At about three minutes, it sounds like “Airbag” is ending, but those bells keep plugging along. Then, the beat come back in, but this time, I began to hear strange things: washy record scratches, sudden gaps of silence in the guitar line, and high-frequency squeals. ‘Is anyone else hearing this?’ I wondered, looking around the empty room for confirmation. Then I remembered that I was still alone.

Congratulations, Radiohead. I’m only one track into OK Computer and you have already made me question my own sanity. And the hardest part was yet to come.

Returning to the single of my daytime TV nightmares — “Paranoid Android,” the second song on OK Computer — I remembered why I’d been so unnerved by Radiohead for all those years since my concussion. It wasn’t the lyrics alone that I found unsettling, but Yorke’s delivery as well. During the subdued first section of the song, before Jonny Greenwood’s unleashes the song’s iconic guitar line, Yorke proclaims: “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” And he just leaves that line there, daring dissenters to try him.

The startling thing isn’t what he’s said, but how he says it. Like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, or some other psychopathic villain who captures our fascination with the morbid, the singer sounds completely resigned as he promises to kill, as if he would feel nothing at all.  It’s not the violence of lines like these that scares us, but the fact that someone could commit the act with no feelings of remorse. There’s a word for it: insanity.

Perhaps it was the time of day, perhaps it was my mood, but on first listen, most of the other songs that stuck out to me were equally dark. In “Exit Music (For a Film),” the closest thing to a love song in Radiohead’s discography, two lovers flee in the middle of the night from an unidentified terror, all the more alarming in its ambiguity. Fear that can be defined — being chased by a person or storm — can also be isolated, grasped, and maybe escaped. In “Exit Music,” we don’t know why the lovers are running, we just know that they have to leave. All of the sudden, the cymbals are crashing, the mellotron choir is wailing, and Yorke repeats coldly: “We hope that you choke.” Left undefined, fear turns to terror.

I didn’t enjoy my first listen to OK Computer. I thought being uncomfortable in the dark would be the perfect for listening Radiohead, but perhaps I wasn’t giving them a fair chance. What sane person would enjoy listening to “Climbing Up the Walls,” a song which uses being trapped indoors as an analogy for inescapable personal demons, while literally trapped indoors? Metaphors are only fun when you aren’t experiencing the pain they refer to.

A few minutes after OK Computer finished, the sky started to gray. I decided to listen more after some rest. 4.5 million people — that’s how many copies of OK Computer have been sold to date — couldn’t all be wrong, could they?

I woke up mid-morning, regretting that I hadn’t drawn the curtains fully shut. The sun made a rare mid-morning appearance through the Seattle cloud cover. I leaned over the side of the couch and tried again. “Airbag” began to play.

This time, I discovered both tension and release. After listening to Yorke yet again share the bad news of the oncoming war, I got some good news too. Singing over a guitar that sounded somehow less jagged and more like Interpol, I heard Yorke announce that he’s “back to save the universe.” My hero! Like a child slowly realizing that the monster in the closet is just a pile of clothes, the inexplicable noises that scared me on “Airbag” began to sound more familiar. Is that my speakers rupturing? No, that’s just Jonny Greenwood playing with his pedals. Am I hearing things? No, that’s just Godrich playing with my mind.

The track listing, which Radiohead reportedly debated for two weeks after finishing the album, played a large part in my attitude change towards OK Computer. The song order, I discovered, highlighted OK Computer‘s balance between dark and light. No pairing points this out better than track nine, “Climbing Up the Walls,” and track ten, “No Surprises.” As I discovered on my first listen, “Climbing Up the Walls,” locks you in room alone with Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant string arrangement and your own worst enemy, yourself. By the time you escape to the next song, it’s like you haven’t seen the light in days, making “No Surprises,” all the more achingly beautiful. The two songs are thematically linked — “Climbing” is ostensibly about depression and “No Surprises” depicts a person considering suicide — but couldn’t be more sonically different. “Climbing” is dark and brooding, while “No Surprises” seeks to capture the warmth of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds sessions. Pairings like “Climbing Up the Walls,” and “No Surprises” keep OK Computer cohesive and balanced, and at least made reconsider my feelings about the album. After a few listens, it no longer seemed like OK Computer was all fear. The nap probably helped too.

As it happened, more assistance was on the way; my friend from middle school, the Radiohead-loving guitarist from middle school jazz band — we later went to college and played house parties together in a funk band — was on a plane to visit me from California. When he arrived the next night, having been dropped off by in the wrong place twice by an overpriced cab, we had a lot to talk about, namely, OK Computer.

I asked him what he liked about OK Computer. Of course, he brought up “Paranoid Android,” that same song that had terrified me when he and I were still playing Glenn Miller tunes together in 7th and 8th grade. He talked about how incredible it is that the song changes so much in six minutes. Thinking I could pull a guitar-playing expert opinion out of him, I asked if he was talking about the musicianship of Greenwood’s playing.

Even I had to admit that I’d found myself concerned less about being on the end of Yorke’s hypothetical firing squad on “Paranoid Android,” instead relishing the intensity of Greenwood’s playing. Listening to his guitar reminded me of hearing Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath for the first time. Really it was the instrumental performance of the whole band. At many moments, OK Computer has that — how should I put it? — fucking badass quality that defines so many classic rock records. When you listen to it, you feel cool.

But no, it wasn’t that, he said. Like so many conversations about music, where you try to isolate exactly what a band does that makes you feel something so immensely, our conversation ended unresolved. One of us probably made a joke about Thom Yorke’s crazy dance moves and then the conversation drifted to my friend’s job, which requires him to work 50 hours a week, the challenges of making friends in a new city, and the insanity of our country.

When my friend left a few days later, I felt disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of OK Computer together. The morning after he left, I slumped on my couch and listened to OK Computer again. And then again. And then one more time. OK Computer finally changed for me as I began to confront its most discomforting song, “Fitter Happier,” in the context of our conversation.

“Fitter Happier” is a two-minute-long spew of lifestyle goals in the contemporary developed world — “Not drinking too much / Regular exercise at the gym / Three days a week / Getting on better with your associate employee” — read by a synthesized voice on an early Mac computer over a distant, melancholy piano line, nearly inaudible audio snippets, and a sliver of strings. Thom Yorke has called it “the most upsetting song I’ve ever written.” Why? When read by the computer, this list of small hopes is drained of all emotion, warning that following this set of rules leads may lead to a sterile, robotic existence. And yet, the lyrics are instantly recognizable because they match the ingrained social expectations that guide so much of the developed world. The song resonates because many of us are living like computers following a set of code, but we may not recognize it until we hear the commands repeated back in an unfamiliar voice. Heard in the context of my conversation with my friend about our experiences entering the workforce, “Fitter Happier” served as a timely reminder of where both of us, and all of our other recently graduated friends, could end up. The song was a reflection of my fears for the future.

After identifying with the music I had tried to so hard to disassociate from since I was 12, I felt less antagonized by the fears expressed in the music; the fears were my own. By the time I fully recovered, I had listened to OK Computer, or as I came to know it, Soundtrack to Eventually Eating Solid Food Again, more times than I had gone outside in the past five days. My 23-year-old self now had to admit what my 12-year-old self knew all along: I was right to feel afraid, but wrong to change the channel.

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One Comment

  1. Homesick Alien
    Posted April 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Great article. How I wish I could listen to OKC for the first time again.

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